I've been on a roll this summer reading and reviewing good novels about family crises — Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small, Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia, Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang. But, this latest domestic drama is one I recommend with a big caveat — especially if you happen to be a parent: Make sure you start Helen Schulman's new novel, This Beautiful Life, on a Friday night, so that when you find yourself compelled to stay up all hours reading it, you can take the rest of the weekend, not only to recover, but to think long and hard about the advantages for your kids of home schooling; cloistered convents, kibbutzes, monasteries and ashrams; or, perhaps, a semester abroad program in Antarctica.
You think I jest, but This Beautiful Life is one scary story, made more so by Schulman's great gifts as a close — and often funny — observer of upper-class social customs. Here's the situation: The Bergamot family moves from idyllic Ithaca to New York City when the dad, Richard, accepts a high-level administrative position at a Columbia-type university. Mom, Liz, has a Ph.D. in art history, but she has put her own fuzzy career ambitions on hold to raise son Jake, who's now 15, and daughter Coco, 6. The Bergamots find themselves plunked into the world of elite private schools, which include kindergarten sleepovers at The Plaza Hotel and birthday-party chartered cruises around Manhattan. In the contemporary comedy-of-manners tradition of a novel like Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It, Schulman, through Liz's alienated perspective, dissects the various cliques standing outside Coco's elementary school at pickup time. Here's a sampling:
The JAPS with the JAPS, the head-banded preppy moms with the preppies, the stray earth mother in Birkenstocks with a baby in a sling ...
Next on the food chain, the "caregivers": a couple of grad students reading Kierkegaard or Sartre and listening to their iPods; ... the small dark fortress of the Caribbean nannies, ...
Liz ... saw a clutch of yummy mummies at the foot of the steps; ... she knew queen bees when she saw them. They were tall in their metallic sandals; their skinny yoga butts trim in their designer jeans ... Only experience told her that when these ladies turned away from their gabby circle to place a cell phone call to their driver or decorator or art consultant, that the skin on their faces would be pure leather.
Fraught with tension as that female gauntlet may be, the consequences of a social misstep prove to be much more dire in Jake's teenaged world. At an unchaperoned house party one weekend, Jake attracts the attentions of a lust-struck eighth-grade girl. He rebuffs her, sort-of, but, undeterred, she sends him a homemade sexually explicit video later that night. Jake freaks out when he sees the video in the privacy of his room and, out of a mixture of fright and sexual braggadocio, he forwards the girl's email to a guy friend, who then sends it on to his friends. Schulman describes the burgeoning virtual disaster this way:
By Monday, it was all over ... school. ... Kids were downloading it and watching it in the library ... Kids were finding it on porno sites. It was all over the country, maybe the world, even. So fast. Just like that. Forward and Send. It was kind of incredible how fast it went. Faster than fire. Practically the speed of sound or even light.
Within weeks, the flourishing future that the Bergamot family envisioned for itself has withered — all because of a few impulsive adolescent finger clicks on the computer.
What sets This Beautiful Life apart from, say, your average Lifetime Movie of the Week domestic drama is not only Shulman's closely observed depictions of the Bergamot family's collapse, but also her smart dramatization of how powerless we all are before the mighty, privacy-dissolving force of the Internet. At the climax of the novel, a distressed Liz cries to her husband about their children, "I don't know how to protect them. The genie's out of the bottle. It's in the air."
That last line sounds like it could have come out of a 1950s horror movie. Indeed, as wry and entertaining as Shulman's social observations are, it's the totally convincing nightmare aspect of her novel that will keep parental readers up at night, wondering how on earth to pull the drawbridges up and shutter the windows against this most potent invisible home invader.
Helen Schulman delivers a ripped-from-the-headlines story of adolescent cluelessness in her new novel, This Beautiful Life. The morning after 15-year-old Jake Bergamot rebuffs the advances of an eighth-grader at an unchaperoned party in her family's mansion, he receives an email with a shockingly lewd come-on video from the girl. Flabbergasted, but also a bit flattered, Jake, recently relocated from a low-key, upstate college town to the high-octane world of New York City private schools, doesn't know what to think: "It was like a hot potato. He had to fling it to someone else." So, with the words "Check this out," he forwards the email to a friend, who forwards it to a few more, and next thing you know, "Daisy Up at Bat" is all over the Internet, with thousands of hits.
Schulman's book raises interesting issues about privacy, shame, responsibility, victimhood, Internet protocol and our culture's growing addiction to the "media highball" of constant connectivity. But her tale's strong similarities to the infamous "Swiffergate" scandal that rocked New York City's exclusive Horace Mann School in 2004 when an eighth grader emailed a lascivious video of herself involving a Swiffer mop to a boy she liked, also underscores the troubling fact that there's no effective delete mechanism once something's gone viral on the Internet.
Mainly, Schulman plays this story from the domestic angle, imagining its repercussions on each member of Jake's family. She takes her time setting the scene, methodically recapping the fateful day that changes the Bergamots' lives. This Beautiful Life reads like a well written but mostly predictable television drama, a sort of situation tragedy about a family under duress.
With amazing alacrity, Jake and his friends, who are essentially good kids, land in deep trouble — suspended from their tony private school and threatened with prosecution for trafficking in child pornography. His mother, already uncomfortable in her new social milieu, loses what little grounding she had. Too late, she realizes that in accompanying her kindergartener to a decadent sleepover party at the Plaza Hotel, she was chaperoning the wrong child. As for Jake's father, a man "allergic to failure," he's aghast to find his new, politically sensitive job in jeopardy. Both parents are ready to do whatever it takes — including hiring a powerful lawyer and strategically leaking stories to the press — to exonerate their son. It never occurs to them that Jake should apologize to Daisy; in fact, this is a case where fear of admission of guilt means never having to say you're sorry.
Schulman, whose previous novels include A Day at the Beach and P.S., targets the privileged world of New York City private schools in pre-Recession 2003 with gusto: "Sure there's diversity. There's millionaires ... and then there's billionaires," a character quips. It's a world that writers love to skewer: Ayelet Waldman's Love and Other Impossible Pursuits and Meg Wolitzer's The Ten Year Nap are recent examples. Schulman raises many of the standard issues about kids crippled by expectations and rich in everything but parental attention and boundaries.
The most shocking scene in This Beautiful Life involves another "schoolgirl-whore" who throws herself at Jake with disturbing self-abasement. It has nothing to do with Internet privacy or child pornography, and everything to do with a profound lack of self-worth. That is the deeper issue that Schulman attempts to address in her novel, a deficiency with widespread consequences, not least of which is the blatant, shameless, often harmful sexting that has become increasingly prevalent in our culture.